My soul was jarred by the morning news early last week. The cumulative impact of one distressing story after another. North Korea claiming to have a hydrogen bomb and submarines to launch it, a disaffected group occupying a Federal building in Oregon, a leading presidential candidate dispensing his unique form of vitriol on the campaign trail, ISIS announcing a new UK man as its executioner and spokesman, and these were just the headlines. Meanwhile, the national debate over immigration, gun control, and healthcare is as intractable and nasty as ever.
At times like this I question whether listening to the news is the best way to start a day. Either my heart bears the burden of these stories or it becomes hardened to them. On this particular morning my spirit felt more burdened than hardened when I sat down for my quiet time. Goodness seemed eclipsed by the darkness of my thoughts, which were well captured by the refrain rattling around my brain – “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men!’” These words, of course, are from the song I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day, based on the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
There is a way of living that can impede our search for goodness. For ours is an unfortunate age that feeds on fear. It’s not just the fear of terrorism and its perceived threat that grips our collective hearts, but the fear of a weakening economy and losing one’s job, the fear of a changing environment from global warming, the fear of illness from drug-resistant superbugs, etc. The fires of these fears are stoked by “talking heads” in the media forever blaming a person or political party for all of our ills, real or imagined. If only we would put their man or woman in office all would be well.
The question I struggled with on this particular morning was not just how to transcend the bleakness of the morning news, but where to find goodness in a world of evil? Where to rest a soul hungering and thirsting for goodness? Where to find things that are true, noble, and right? Where to seek what’s pure, lovely, and admirable?
I discovered goodness in two places that day. First, in a delightful book I am reading called Northern Farm written by Henry Beston in the 1940’s. This is a journal of a year in the life of a Maine farm. Mostly it is a reflection about nature and the seasonal changes in one rural outpost Downeast. The author’s reflections remind me of the rhythm of life lived close to the land – a slower paced, more deliberate existence in harmony with rather that opposition to the natural (and supernatural) world. Within a few pages I felt my spiritual equilibrium being restored. But beyond the narrative is the fact that my Father loved to read this book, which was his copy that he gave me a year or so before he died. So when I hold and read it I am also remembering my Dad and imagine him being filled by the beauty of the images sketched by the author.
I also found goodness in a memorial service I attended later that day for the mother of a friend of mine. Her name was Millie and the tributes to her were lovely, with many members of her extended family eulogizing her. One thing that stands out for me was how open and accepting she was to people in her life. Particularly moving was the way the spouse of each of her children recounted how she embraced them unconditionally and became for them a second mother. Loving others like this is truly the heart of goodness.
Both the book and memorial service were a balm for my soul. They encouraged me to think anew about goodness and what it means to live a good life.
Longfellow’s poem doesn’t end in despair despite the fact that when he wrote it on Christmas day 1863 he had good reason to despair. The nation was engulfed in the great Civil War, his oldest son lay in a hospital bed paralyzed by a bullet from that war, and he was still mourning his wife who had died tragically two years earlier when her dress caught fire. That Longfellow had five other children to care for certainly weighed heavily on his heart. How deep his despair must have been when he penned the verse of no peace on earth, no good-will among men.
And yet, somewhere Longfellow found the strength to transcend this dark period of his life as his concluding words express a deeper hope and reality, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men.’” Great words of faith to hold onto as a certain reality. And a great encouragement in the search for goodness.